Brawling yet tender, wild yet rigorously controlled, first-time feature director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals is an impressionistic swirl of a film about masculinity, about abuse, about growing up queer, about chaotic family life, about the jumble of incidents and stirrings through which a child discovers a self. It's essentially plotless yet dense with incident, even with its share of shocks. For the family at its heart, everything seems to be in constant, even terrifying disorder, and yet nothing really changes -- not after one son discovers he's different, not even after dad knocks mom's teeth out.
Adapted from Justin Torres' autobiographical novel, Zagar's film immerses us in the adolescence of Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three vigorously rambunctious, perennially shirtless brothers coming up rough in upstate New York. Zagar captures their childhoods in hurtling wide shots of kids running amuck: chest-beating forest play, feral screaming in an abandoned silo, raiding the fridge, they jab their hands into peanut butter and lick off their fingers. Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan shot We the Animals on Super 16 mm film, tracking the kids as they bound across glades or kitchens. The result is a freewheeling, intimate, hazy look, marked by a graininess that suggests not just home movies but the memory of home movies.
Their parents love each other, and them, but are volatile and overwhelmed. Their cars break down, their bosses are assholes, their near-feral kiddos limit their options. And, sometimes, the father (Raul Castillo) hits the mother (Sheila Vand). Those rowdy wide shots are complemented by raw and delicate close-ups; it's terrifying when the energy of the former bursts into the latter.